Dorset Theatre Festival Closes The 2022 Season in Triumph with Its Remarkable World Première of “Thirst”

 David Mason and Kathy McCafferty in THIRST at the Dorset Theatre Festival. Photos by Joey Moro

by Shelley A. Sackett

Arriving early for “Thirst,” playwright Ronán Noone’s dazzling new play, is a stroke of good ole Irish luck. A crisp sound system pumps toe-tapping traditional pub music, setting a jig-worthy mood. Functional period lamps bathe the livable kitchen set in warmth, creating a cozy tone for arguably the best theatrical experience of the 2022 summer season.

By the time the Irish lilted announcements herald the play’s start, the audience has been transported to another time and another place.

And what a time and place it is.

Noone sets “Thirst” in the kitchen of the Tyrone family’s seaside Connecticut home on the August day in 1912 when Eugene O’Neill’s classic tragedy, “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” takes place. [Although familiarity with that play is not a prerequisite to “getting” ‘Thirst,’ Noone sprinkles his script with delicious breadcrumbs for those who have tasted the original to follow.]

While the Tyrones spend the day destroying themselves and each other offstage in their toile-wallpapered dining room, their cook, kitchen maid and chauffer spend theirs in the kitchen, sitting around the table together, enjoying their privacy and relative freedom while performing their demeaning menial duties. Their individual posts may have led them to this quasi-family-by-default situation, but they are genuine in their interactions. They bicker, they laugh, they tease and they worry. But they do it together, and it comes from their hearts. They genuinely need and enjoy each other’s company.

Each brings a different, but similar, back story to the mix.

Bridget Conroy emigrated from Ireland 16 years ago to become the Tyrone’s cook. Her outer shell is brittle and cynical, but she saves her harshest criticism and reproach for herself, especially for her closeted alcoholism. Yet, the only time she emerges from her carapace is when she’s juiced enough to black out the shame and regrets that poison her every sober breath and thought. Only then can she express — and admit to — the love and need she has for Jack.

Meg Hennessy, McCafferty

For his part, Jack Smythe, a local native and the Tyrone’s chauffeur, grew up poor in this place that is playground to the spoiled rich. He yearns to leave his hometown with its paper trail witnessing his past transgressions and finally, as he approaches middle age, set out to secure his independence and happiness.

Last, but hardly least, is the winsome new arrival, Cathleen Mullen, Bridget’s 18-year-old niece who miraculously survived her trip over on the ill-fated Titanic. She is feisty and blindly optimistic, determined to climb the golden ladder of American success.

These three flawed characters bring real troubles and equally real compassion to their shared  table. Bridget was banished from her home after giving birth at age 16; that birth is only thing she has done in her life that she’s proud of, in spite of its personal cost. Like the penitent sinner she believes herself to be, she dutifully sends money and a letter to her family every week. In 16 years, she has received not even a postcard in return. Although she loved the beach in Ireland, she won’t go to the sea just down the street, either because it makes her too homesick or because she must deny herself all pleasure as penance for her sin, or — most likely — both.

Jack was a drunk, so far gone he couldn’t face his wife’s illness and death and even missed her funeral, when Bridget found him in the street and, like a sick stray, took him home and nursed him back to physical and spiritual health. In return, Jack is determined to offer her the same life raft and save her from a life of self-pity and recrimination — a life he knows too well — not because he owes her, but because he loves her.

Cathleen’s bubble is burst when, shortly after arriving in America, she receives a letter from her fiancé announcing he is ditching her for a woman with property. She’s more annoyed and humiliated than heartbroken. Young, ambitious and resilient, she naively throws herself behind a ditzy plan to become the next “it” girl on Broadway.

These three have more in common than their woes, regrets and heartbreaks. They are survivors and they share a determination to live, no matter the consequences. They also really care about each other. Noone, with his well-tuned ear and light touch, pens robust yet sleek dialogue that tackles a lot of big ticket topics (shame, redemption, assimilation, discrimination to name a few) while staying grounded in the here and now of these three individuals and their intertwined daily lives.

By Ronán Noone Directed by Theresa Rebeck, Scenic Design: CHRISTOPHER & JUSTIN SWADER, Costume Design: FABIAN FIDEL AGUILAR, Lighting Design: MARY ELLEN STEBBINS, Sound Design: FITZ PATTON, Stage Manager: AVERY TRUNKO

Rebeck’s direction is economical, efficient and effective, and she lets each actor spread their wings and breathe life and individuality into their characters. They inhale, they exhale, they react, interact and bring each other lightness and laughter. Kathy McCafferty, as Bridget, is a whirling dervish of anger and productivity, and the kitchen is her made-to-order stage. She cooks (making real scrambled eggs over a real range), scrubs, arranges, rearranges and throws pots and pans, all while letting fly mouthfuls of rapid-fire heavily accented lines.

David Mason brings a lanky self confidence and Kevin Costner-esque genuineness to his Jack. He is a regular, decent guy who made a mistake, acknowledges it and just wants a shot at the brass ring with the girl of his dreams — nothing more, but nothing less.

Rounding out the trio is the lithesome and impossibly creamy-skinned (think yogurt, not heavy cream) Meg Hennessy as the vivacious Cathleen. She brings comic timing, physicality and a gift for facial mood changes that are as talented as they are entertaining.

If there is a flaw, it is that the women’s accented rapid-fire delivery is often muffled or lost, a shame (and annoyance) considering the richness of Noone’s craftmanship. A little microphone could go a long way.

That aside, there are too many positives to give them all justice. Mary Ellen Stebbins’ lighting paints the day’s passing with a sun shape shifting across the kitchen walls. Fitz Patton makes optimum use of a terrific sound system. And Christopher and Justin Swader’s set design, with its punctuating swinging back door, adds more than a mere scenic element — it is an escape route from all the Tyrone kitchen represents to a world of fresh air and fresh starts.

That door swings both ways. Jack and Bridget, after two plus hours, finally manage to cross over the threshold to the land of hope and promise. And Cathleen? Only time — and perhaps a sequel — will tell.

‘Thirst’ — Written by Ronán Noone. Directed by Theresa Rebeck; Scenic Design by Christopher and Justin Swader; Sound Design by Fitz Patton; Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins, Costume Design by Fabian Fidel Aguilar. Presented by Dorset Theatre Festival, Dorset, Vermont. The run has ended.

Dorset Theatre Festival’s ‘Queen of the Night’ Spins Evening Magic

Leland Fowler (at left) and Danny Johnson in ‘Queen of the Night.’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Finding one’s seat (a folding beach chair) for  Dorset Theatre Festival’s world première of “Queen of the Night” at Southern Vermont Art Center’s rustic plein-air stage is like entering a fairy forest world where reality and theater blend. Night creatures are everywhere — by design piped in over the sound system, and by Mother Nature in the woods, open field and air that are the outdoor playhouse. As dusk fades to night, the stars complement the strung overhead lights to create a magical haven far removed from the day’s blaring headlines and latest COVID statistics.

The efficient and effective campsite set, designed by landscape gardeners Justin and Christopher Swader, blends into its organic setting. All the natural world is indeed this play’s intimate stage, and the audience is palpably grateful to be part of it. What could possibly go wrong on a night like this? By the time Tyler (Leland Fowler) and his father Stephen (Danny Johnson) amble onto the “stage” and begin to pitch their tents, it feels like we should jump up, welcome them to the neighborhood and offer to help them set up.

This father and son, however, are not simply taking a break from their Houston lives to spend three peaceful nights camping in a nearby state park. They have brought more baggage than their camping gear and a mile-long laundry list of issues that both unite and divide them. “Ty” is young, black, semi-employed and flamboyantly gay. For his first night in the woods, he shows up in orange short shorts and a black floral, lacy top. L.L. Bean he is not (thanks to Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s bold and fun costumes). He loves city life, gay bars, vamping, prancing and channeling Celine Dion at the top of his talented lungs. He worries about bad cell service and being eaten by bears. He is in constant motion and we are drawn to his physicality like a moth to a flame.

Stephen, on the other hand, is steady and solid, a reliable and dependable employee and family man. Think of a 63-year-old man with James Earl Jones’ octogenarian gravitas. He inhales the campsite with reverence and relief. He pays attention to nature with serious religiosity. He is the obvious yin to his son’s yang; and yet, as the play unfolds, we will see how these opposite and contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent. By the end, they actually give rise to and liberate each other as they interrelate.

The presenting reason for this father-son camping trip to their longtime stomping grounds is the impending remarriage of Ty’s mother, which both will attend. They are navigating difficult waters — Ty and his more successful corporate lawyer brother Marshall are trying to be there for both parents without making hurting either; Stephen admits he still loves his (ex-) wife. The weekend is meant to clear the air and reset their clock, to help them reconnect in the way they did when Ty was a young Boy Scout and he and his father would go camping, in this very spot, just the two of them.

The trouble is that they each have very different memories of those trips, and of just about everything else during Ty’s childhood. Stephen wanted to make Ty tough, independent and resourceful. All Ty wanted was to feel his father’s love and acceptance of him, just the way he was.

Over the course of the 90-minute intermission-less production, we witness the erosion of years of hurt, disappointments and missed opportunities as the two let down their guard and act more like buddies than adversaries. Stephen confesses that he has been laid off from his job and that he has been seeing a therapist. He’s changed. He’s sorry. He wants to be close to his son, to undo the damage he had no idea he caused. “You’re my missing piece,” he tells Ty. “I need you.”

Ty acknowledges his frailty and insecurity, his sadness and longing for paternal praise and love. His veneer of gaiety barely camouflages a melancholy so deep that he reflects on his desire to die alone in the woods at night.

tate uses this broken relationship as a platform from which to tackle a bunch of big-ticket themes: being Black; being gay; being a man; being a Black gay man; being accepted; being accepting; unconditional love; self-love, self-hatred, family dynamics, to name just a few. While his dialogue has moments of sharp insight and laugh-out-loud humor, it often feels preachy and spread too thin over too many issues. Some lines feel injected out of nowhere just to make a point, never a help to a two-handed play.

To the script’s rescue, however, is the spectacular acting of the two leads, reason enough to see the production (and anything else these two may appear in).

Danny Johnson brings an elegant sobriety to the father, Stephen. His raspy melodious voice, cadence and spot-on phrasing imbue his character with humility, decency and authenticity, bring true life to a role that could have been easily become two-dimensional. Leland Fowler brings equal parts joie de vivre and soul-crushing heartache to Ty, miraculously keeping the character light and accessible.

A cursory search reveals that Queen of the Night has many meanings, including the villain in “The Magic Flute,” a white night-blooming cactus flower and, slangily, a flamboyant and promiscuous gay man. It’s the operatic aria reference that resonates most with me, with its message that only those who embrace love and forgiveness are worthy to be considered human. These two are indeed all too human beings, dealing with their perceptions of who they are and who they want to be, starting with their roles as father and son.

Queen of the Night’ – Written by travis tate. Directed by Raz Golden. Scenic Design by Christopher and Justin Swader; Lighting Design by Yuki Nakase Link; Sound Design by Megumi Katayama; Costume Design by Fabian Fidel Aguilar. Presented by Dorset Theatre Festival at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vermont through September 4.

For tickets and information, call 802-867-2223, ext. 101 or visit dorsettheatrefestival.org

‘Private Lives’ a Classy Production of Classic Summer Fare at DTF

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Rachel Pickup and Shawn Fagan in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

Nothing welcomes light summery breezes like a witty Nöel Coward comedy of manners, and the Dorset Theatre Festival is spot on in its choice of the timeless ‘Private Lives’ to open its 42nd season. “We believe ‘the play’s the thing’ here at Dorset, and this is one of the most fabulous plays of all times- full of wit and sophisticatedly funny. Coward captures the universal humor that sometimes ensues once we lose our minds by falling in love,” said Artistic Director Dina Janis by email.

The plot is deceptively simple. Divorced spouses Elyot (Shawn Fagan) and Amanda (the sublime and worth-the-price-of-admission Rachel Pickup) have remarried and are honeymooning with their respective new spouses, Sybil (Anna Crivelli) and Victor (Hudson Oz). By the divine intervention of Coward’s wicked imagination, they end up in adjacent rooms on the night they are each to start their new lives. When they see each other across their shared balcony’s hedge, the sparks fly and they impulsively flee their hapless new partners to resume what they have idealized as their romantic destiny.

 

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Rachel Pickup, Shawn Fagan, Anna Crivelli, and Hudson Oz in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

 

Back at Amanda’s posh Paris apartment, their fiery passion predictably devolves from love to the same incendiary anger from whose ashes desire was restored. Couches practically take flight, ashtrays become bullets and words are poison darts, aimed with years of practiced marksmanship to draw maximum blood. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ or as their tabloid selves (they actually played these roles in 1983 at New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater), and you get the picture.

Their aggrieved new spouses track them down, and the hit-and-miss slapstick ensues. By the curtain’s fall, the pendulum has swung back and forth so many times for Amanda and Elyot that it becomes clear they really are meant for each other. Anyone else would have been bedridden with a bad case of vertigo ages ago; these two enfants terribles are not only still standing, but actually relish the prospect of round three.

The production’s shining stars are two: Rachel Pickup as Amanda and Lee Savage’s gorgeous Art Deco sets. Ms. Pickup gives a Broadway-caliber performance (where, coincidentally, she recently appeared at the St. James in Coward’s “Present Laughter” with Kevin Kline). The impossibly willowy actress is all comedic physicality and glamor, delivering her lines and gestures with surgical precision. Hers is not your average summer theater performance and it is as welcome as it is mesmerizing.

 

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Anna Crivelli, Shawn Fagan, Hudson Oz, and Rachel Pickup in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

 

Equally astonishing are the period sets Mr. Savage manages to create in rural Vermont; these too are Broadway worthy. The hotel terraces in Act One are as stunning as they are humorous in their mirror images of floor to ceiling blue draperies and wrought iron balustrades. The details of Act Two’s Paris flat are like a ‘Where’s Waldo” for the audience, complete with Victrola, piano, fainting couch and polar bear skin rug. Asked what was the biggest challenge in mounting this production, Ms. Janis replied without hesitation, “Making the Deco Period come to life on our budget!” Clearly, she succeeded.

Although the second act drags and the rest of the cast pales compared to Ms. Pickup, the production is a theatrical icon whose appeal is as timeless as pink champagne. “The play really gives it all to us, with its sparkling language and the collision of its characters, completely recognizable to a contemporary audience for their passion and for their capacity for selfishness, obstinance and even cruelty,” Director Evan Yionoulis said by email. One can almost hear Nöel Coward whispering, “Touché, darling. Touché.”

‘Private Lives’ – Written by Nöel Coward. Directed by Evan Yionoulis; Set Design: Lee Savage. Lighting Design: Donald Holder. Costume Design: Katherine B. Roth. Sound Design: Jane Shaw. Fight Choreographer: BH Barry.

Through July 6 at Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vt. For more information, visit dorsettheatrefestival.org or call 802-867-2223.